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Total Recall (1990)
Director: Paul Verhoeven

review by J.C. Hartley

Re-released, inevitably, to coincide with the remake starring Colin Farrell, this was director Paul Verhoeven's second foray into Hollywood science fiction, following the break-out success of RoboCop in 1987, which combined violent imagery with acerbic social satire. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story concerning a humble clerk who unearths buried memories about a previous career both as a secret agent and as saviour of the planet, Total Recall follows a Mars-obsessed construction worker Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who unlocks another life when he takes a virtual reality holiday.

Quaid has an impressive physique, and a sexy wife in Lori (Sharon Stone), but longs for his life to amount to more, a feeling exacerbated by dreams about Mars in which he accompanies a mystery woman. Despite warnings to the contrary, by both Lori and a work colleague, Quaid visits Rekall - a company specialising in 'holidays' via realistic memory implants, including the opportunity to engage in 'ego trip' role-playing. Quaid opts to be a secret agent on Mars but suffers what the Rekall staff believe is a 'schizophrenic embolism' before the memories are even implanted. Sent home by Rekall, Quaid is attacked by his co-worker and others, during which he displays hand-to-hand combat skills and a familiarity with automatic weapons. Back home, Quaid suffers a murderous attack by Lori, who reveals that their marriage is a sham and that the life he believes is real is a creation of false memory implants.

On the run from Lori's real husband, Richter (Michael Ironside, Terminator Salvation), Quaid is given a suitcase by a former partner. A videotaped message from himself informs Quaid that he is really Hauser, a former employee of Vilos Cohaagen, a corporate mining boss and the brutal Governor of Mars. Hauser switched sides to a resistance movement, and to prevent him revealing secret information, Cohaagen had Hauser implanted with false memories. Hauser tells Quaid he must go to Mars, which he does, in a famous scene, disguised as a woman.

Once on Mars, Quaid contacts Melina, the girl from his dreams in Venusville, and meets some of the population mutated through poor radiation shielding and forced to pay Cohaagen for oxygen while working in his turbinium mine. Quaid has to meet Kuato, leader of the resistance, but first comes a twist that many think raises the film above the ultra-violent shoot-'em-up it has been so far. Quaid and Melina are waylaid by Dr Edgemar, Rekall's President, who claims that, far from fighting the good fight for justice on Mars, Quaid is still strapped to the couch at Rekall HQ experiencing implanted memories. Offered a blue pill to release him from this virtual reality, pre-empting The Matrix, where a blue pill would have kept Neo in the Matrix while a red one released him, Quaid is set to acquiesce when he notices sweat dripping down Edgemar's face and promptly shoots him. His decision made, Quaid then drives forward to do the right thing; but there is another twist to come.

In an interview, director Verhoeven talks about the difficult third act and his desire to raise the film above the shoot and chase story it is up to now. He suggests that the questioning of the nature, or veracity, of reality is more of a European theme and not something one associates with American cinema. I am not personally convinced this is true. Casting doubt upon our ability to guarantee the evidence of our perceptions was a powerful theme of Dick's literary work of course, but surely it occurs in American cinema as much as in European. I can see how Fritz Lang's The Woman In The Window, and the output of Alfred Hitchcock, and Roman Polanski, would make a case for that kind of film owing much to a European émigré influence, but I am sure indigenous talent has engaged with the same philosophical ground.

The ultimate twist is presented when it is revealed that Quaid, in his earlier incarnation as Hauser, rather than switching sides and doing the right thing, formed the plan with Cohaagen to only appear to do so and then, reborn as Quaid, infiltrate the resistance. Of course this is all arrant nonsense because Hauser has already infiltrated the resistance, initiated a relationship with Melina, and although he has not met Kuato, he does not appear to have to resurface as Quaid to complete his mission. The mcguffin, the secret knowledge that Hauser/ Quaid possesses that makes him valuable to the resistance and apparently dangerous to Cohaagen is that the indigenous Martian tech can melt subterranean ice and release oxygen, effectively terraforming the planet. This ancient Martian hardware is reminiscent of the memory banks of the Krell in Forbidden Planet.

Cohaagen attempts to resurrect Hauser as the dominant memory, with Melina reduced to being the latter's compliant trophy, but Quaid escapes from the memory machine slaughtering his enemies in the process. Having triggered the Martian technology that releases the oxygen from the ice, saved Venusville from oxygen starvation, and killed all the bad guys, Quaid allows himself one more question as to whether this is all a dream before enjoying a smooch with Melina.

While one must compliment Verhoeven for attempting to layer his film with subtext, an intelligent notion like the nature of reality is only effective if all parties are prepared to play with it. The film merely asks if Quaid is really an undercover thug or if the whole narrative is being played out on a virtual reality couch in a downtown office. The question makes no difference to the action and its outcome. The revelation that Quaid's alter-ego Hauser was really one of the bad guys is irrelevant in that Quaid in reality, or in virtual reality, suffers no crisis of identity but continues to pummel, shoot, skewer, and maim the enemies of decency, to save the underdog and win the hand of a fair lady. One might make a huge intuitive leap and suggest that if Quaid is dreaming then Verhoeven posits a repressed blue-collar desire to overthrow corporate America but that really is detecting satire on the slenderest of evidence.

In his interview in the extras package, Verhoeven is full of praise for Schwarzenegger for his contribution to a happy set and his sympathy with the director's artistic decisions. Of course there is enough in the film to pander to narcissism, even after trying to kill him Lori suggests one last roll in the hay with Quaid, and the receptionist at Rekall can't resist checking Quaid out with a look of frank admiration. One assumes the new Total Recall will make more of the questioning of reality than the original did, even while, on the evidence of the trailer, it plunders filmic SF tropes from storm troopers to air cars. Also in the extras are a special effects featurette and an audio commentary with Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger.

Total Recall



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